March 10, 2006

C.U. Backs MIT in Suicide Suit

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Six years ago, MIT student Elizabeth Shin committed suicide. Two years later, her parents sued the university, claiming that MIT failed to provide reasonable mental health services to prevent their daughter’s death. While the Massachusetts trial court dismissed claims against MIT, it ruled that non-clinical, student-life staff have or may have a duty to prevent suicide, a duty which student services is unqualified to fulfill.

On February 24, 2006, Cornell and seven other institutions joined together to file an amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief in support of MIT’s appeal. Other schools include Brown University, Dartmouth College, Emory University, Stanford University, Rice University, University of Chicago and the University of Southern California.

As outlined in the brief, the “Superior Court’s ruling appears to hold that student-life staff members who are not mental health practitioners have a duty to prevent a student’s suicide if they are ‘aware’ of the student’s mental problem and can ‘reasonably foresee’ that the student might harm himself or herself.”

The brief stresses the vital role of non-clinician staff members at colleges, arguing that the ruling might prevent them from providing the highest level of support.

“This ruling is completely inconsistent with court rulings elsewhere and runs counter to policy interests that make sure at a university such as Cornell that a service provided for students in distress is caring and highly competent,” said University Counsel James J. Mingle, who announced Cornell’s support of MIT’s appeal.

Mingle fears that the decision, if adopted elsewhere, has potential to put student service support systems all over the country at serious risk. In the brief, Cornell argues that the court ruling departs from previously settled precedents relating to a university’s duty to prevent suicide. In the past, the court has ruled that non-clinicians are responsible for a student’s suicide only if they have a) physical custody of the student, b) caused the mental illness, or c) deprived the student the opportunity to seek help. MIT clinicians appear innocent in these three regards.

The brief also argues against the wide scope of the term “foreseeability”, claiming that the accepted tort rejects the claim that with mere foreseeability leads to duty. Additionally, if the ruling is adopted, universities will have difficulty recruiting people for student services positions; this will lead to less support for troubled students.

“There will be legal liability for student service professionals, those who deal with students and work closely with mental health clinicians,” said Mingle.

Dr. Greg Eels, psychologist and director of Cornell Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), believes the court ruling has potential to create a chilling effect. He worries that people might begin to ask: “Will I even bother to help this student if I am in danger of being sued?” Eels believes mental health workers might refrain from going above and beyond the call of duty for fear of getting in trouble.

When Cornell heard about the initial Shin ruling, a meeting was held at the Council of Mental Health Law fair. A core group consisting of Cornell, Brown and Stanford was established to support MIT.

“We looked to other colleagues to see if they were eager to join and they were,” said Mingle. Other institutions began to follow Cornell’s lead; seven universities have since joined to file the brief.

Other organizations are taking action as well. Higher education associations in Washington, D.C. have filed a brief on behalf of members such as the Martin Council of Education. Several universities in Massachusetts filed another brief.

“There is quite a voice of universities through these associations and through this brief. There is concern from other universities and demonstrable support for MIT,” said Mingle.

Mingle outlined Cornell’s main reasons for supporting MIT in the legal battle.

“Our first purpose is in support of the entire cadre of staff members and faculty who provide a network of support to students who experience academic and personal problems,” Mingle said.

In addition, Cornell administrators believe that the brief might help MIT reverse the Massachusetts court ruling.

“We want to support a fellow institution whose administrators are facing substantial legal risks,” Mingle continued.

Both Eel and Mingle have confidence in Cornell’s student health services and the ways in which students in mental distress are treated at the University.

“We have a team approach here. Therapists and psychiatrists work together, and anyone on medication would see both of them; if they did not come in, the [therapist and psychiatrist] would follow up,” said Eel.

Cornell also has an involuntary leave policy that forces students who disrupt the community to take medical leaves. Students can also volunteer to take medical leaves.

“Our system is a very thoughtful system that has a superb group of administrators, clinicians, faculty and student peer advisors,” Mingle said.

As explained in the brief, mental health problems among college students are widespread and frequent. A 2005 National College Health Assessment survey of more than 50,000 students found that 11 percent of women and 9 percent of men have reported seriously considering attempting suicide. Thus, Cornell and the seven other institutions who filed the brief stress the urgency of reversing the Shin ruling, a decision that may significantly impact college students all over the country.

“Given that the trial in this action is scheduled for May 2006, the Superior Court’s ruling, in the ordinary course, might not be reviewed for several more years. To end the needless disruption and confusion attendant to the Superior Court’s ruling, the Amici respectfully urge this court to take interlocutory review of that ruling and reverse it.”

Archived article by Jessica Liebman
Sun Staff Writer